Opinion

Jill Abramson
Murdoch plays the Trump card

Rupert Murdoch is friendly with many world leaders, but the octogenarian media baron has always wanted to be close to an American president. Now he is.

According to a former Fox executive, Murdoch talks on the phone to Donald Trump so frequently there are sometimes multiple calls a day. He has a filial relationship with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a top White House adviser. Trump, meanwhile, often seeks advice from Sean Hannity, a star of Murdoch’s Fox News channel.

Recent profiles in The New Yorker and The New York Times have illustrated how deftly Murdoch mixes friendships, family relations and political connections to strengthen his business. In March 2019 he completed the deal of a lifetime – the sale of 21st Century Fox to the Walt Disney Company for $US71 billion – which leaves him with a smaller but still politically influential Fox Corporation, the umbrella company that includes Fox News.

The money-making combination of “bidness”, politics and family that usually works magic for Murdoch also helped seal the deal with Disney. President Trump called Murdoch to congratulate him when it was announced, and former Republican speaker of the house of representatives Paul Ryan joined the Fox board immediately after the deal closed. Leadership of the company went to Murdoch’s elder son, Lachlan, 47, who shares his father’s conservative views, crucial given that Fox News wants to retain its status as the Trump Network. The president has given by far the most interviews to Fox, frequently calling in to his favourite shows, and his morning tweets often reflect what he’s watched on the network’s breakfast show, Fox & Friends. But Lachlan Murdoch is not the president’s phone buddy, at least not yet.

The tight Trump–Fox relationship goes back before the New York real estate mogul contemplated running for office. He had already been given a regular call-in slot on Fox. Murdoch’s American network, as well as his New York tabloid newspaper, The New York Post, helped burnish Trump’s celebrity, sometimes with tasteless front-page headlines such as “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had” – something Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, supposedly said of him.

The Trump–Murdoch relationship has always been symbiotic. The audiences for cable news in the United States are fairly small. On an average night, Fox attracts about 2.5 million viewers. Most are old (the average age of a Fox viewer is close to 70), white and right-wing. Most voted for Trump, although Murdoch was not an early supporter. In recent years, according to an associate, Murdoch has feared the rise of another, even more conservative media powerhouse, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and must fight to keep the loyalty of Fox’s audience. Trump needs Fox to stoke his base.

Meanwhile, Fox News has been bedevilled by management instability – its founder, Roger Ailes, embroiled in an expensive and embarrassing sexual harassment scandal, was fired by Murdoch in 2016 with a $US40 million exit package, and died 10 months later. One of Ailes’ successors, Bill Shine, left for a top White House job (supposedly on the recommendation of Hannity) and was abruptly fired, like many other members of the White House team. The revolving door moves the other way, too: Hope Hicks, long one of Trump’s closest aides at the Trump Organization and the White House, is now the chief communications officer for Fox.

One of the jewels in Murdoch’s remaining American media empire is The Wall Street Journal, one of the most influential news organisations in the US. He bought the newspaper in 2007 for $US5 billion. It remains the bible of Wall Street, with strong Washington news coverage and a widely read conservative editorial page. People close to Murdoch say that, of all his holdings, he would never sell the Journal. Unlike Fox News, though, the Journal does not always align with President Trump’s views, especially on trade and immigration.

Pre-Murdoch, I worked in The Wall Street Journal’s Washington office from 1988 to 1997. I was an investigative reporter covering money and politics. I covered how Murdoch cosied up and donated to Republican Newt Gingrich when he became speaker of the house in 1995. The Journal’s news pages were, and for the most part still are, not ideological or partisan. Not so the sharp, sometimes stinging, opinion writing on the editorial pages; the separation between news and opinion is preserved by most US newspapers. While I worked at the Journal, the news pages published an excerpt from a book I co-wrote that was critical of a conservative hero, the US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. The editorial pages blasted the book.

Some observers have written that Murdoch has made the Journal more stridently conservative. I haven’t detected a major difference, except for the addition of new sections and the shortening of stories. It’s still considered one of America’s most prestigious and influential papers.

Of all his holdings, Murdoch has always loved his papers the most, even if some are money pits. His empire began with the inheritance of his father’s papers, Adelaide’s The News and its Sunday edition, The Mail. Now he controls two-thirds of daily newspaper circulation in Australia. He publishes the only national broadsheet, The Australian. As in the US, and in Britain too, he has used his papers in Australia as political bludgeons.

Former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd each felt the lash of Murdoch’s disapproval. In The Sun-Herald, Rudd called Murdoch “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy” and added, “Murdoch is not just a news organisation. Murdoch operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view.”

Similar statements have been made about Murdoch in Britain, where he supported Brexit, and in the US, where he is credited not only with helping to elect Trump but also with enabling the earlier rise of the populist Tea Party.

In the US, Murdoch’s cable shows and the president echo the same conspiracy theories, especially ones involving the “deep state” of career national security officials, portrayed as trying to oust Trump from office, and baseless allegations that then president Barack Obama spied on the Trump campaign. It’s often hard to tell who is leading and who is following.

When I was managing editor of The New York Times, I made a point of monitoring what some of Fox News’s prime-time stars were saying about the Times. Bill O’Reilly, who was also toppled from his Fox perch because of sexual misconduct charges, regularly made false statements about the Times on his show, which was the channel’s most popular at the time. I once called him to complain. He was cordial and said he’d check out my complaints; unsurprisingly, nothing happened.

Some US columnists have recently written that Murdoch’s power is exaggerated. With young activists rising up to support Trump’s Democratic rivals for the presidency, as well as pumping energy into causes such as acting on climate change, ending police brutality and reversing unfair economic policies that favour the super-rich, the right-wing politics of both Fox and Trump may indeed be waning. The majority of the population will soon be African-American and Latinx, and the conservative base is ageing quickly.

Even as Murdoch’s US media empire shrinks, the new media laws in Australia have only strengthened and intensified the concentration of his holdings and influence.

And I’m certainly not ready to downplay Murdoch’s political influence in the US. Jane Mayer, a terrific investigative reporter for The New Yorker magazine and my one-time co-author, recently wrote a much-discussed article about Fox. In her piece, she recounts how the president ordered one of his top economic advisers to intervene at the justice department to block the merger of Murdoch’s rival, Time Warner, with AT&T. (The aide ignored the order, despite Murdoch’s clout.) Mayer also reports the conservative pundit Ann Coulter saying that when she was banned from appearing on Fox shows, President Trump offered to call Murdoch on her behalf. She was soon invited back.

As Donald Trump prepares for a re-election campaign, he needs to fire up his base. The best ignition system he has is Fox News. As long as this is true, Rupert Murdoch, in the US as well as in Australia, will remain one of the most powerful men in the world. 

Jill Abramson will appear in coming weeks at The Wheeler Centre and Sydney Writers’ Festival.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Murdoch's Trump card". Subscribe here.

Jill Abramson
is the former executive editor of The New York Times.